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Do Coaches Make a Difference In March Madness?


Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The 2014 NCAA brackets will be revealed shortly and when they are, it will be a mad scramble to get them printed out, filled out and submitted to a multitude of pools, the vast majority of which are totally illegal. (Don't be surprised if someone resembling Lazlo Holleyfield from Real Genius walks off with $1 Billion of Warren Buffett & Dan Gilbert's money).

People will scoop up any number of tips to fill out their brackets, only to watch them crash and burn as Aunt Gladys walks off with the pot, thanks to her random selection of team names that sounded nice. I'm not going to tell you I know the answers, because I haven't watched enough of the 64 68 teams that will be in this year's tournament to know who is really capable of beating who. I can look back at history and see what past champions have in common.

Unlike ESPN, who will tell you how the last two teams that had the highest BPI going into the tournament ended up winning (making Arizona the favorite to win it all this year), I went back a little further in looking at the winning records of NCAA champion coaches. For those drinking the BPI kool-aid, have you asked yourself why ESPN stopped with just the past two years and won't even show the BPI in years beyond that? My guess is because it doesn't hold up over time.

I wanted to know how many career NCAA Division 1 wins championship coaches had coming into the tournament the year they won. I decided to go back 14 years to look at the results. Why 14? Well, it's certainly a better statistical sampling than the last two years of BPI. I thought it would also be a good representation of the modern college game and I think that is the case.

Over the last 14 years, NCAA championship-winning coaches averaged 532 wins going into their championship-winning tournament. Mike Krzyzewski skews the average on the top end with 862 wins in 2010, while Tom Izzo sets the low end with 114 wins in 2000. Five championship coaches were repeat winners during that span- Rick Pitino, Mike Krzyzewski (I'm already sick of typing his name), Roy Williams, Jim Calhoun and Billy Donovan.

That seems to suggest an experienced college coach makes a difference when it comes to winning NCAA championships. So how do the coaches in this year's field stack up? Again, I only took a look at the top-25, because there's no way any team outside the top-25 has any shot to win it all. Here's how they stack up (I may be off by a win here or there due to tournament games not updated in records, but not enough to make a difference)-

 Billy Donovan Florida   480 wins
 Gregg Marshall  Wichita State  367 wins
 Jay Wright Villanova   406 wins
 Sean Miller Arizona   248 wins
 Rick Pitino Louisville   693 wins
 Tony Bennett Virginia   172 wins
 Mike Krzyzewski Duke   983 wins
 John Beilein  Michigan 438 wins 
Steve Fisher  San Diego State  493 wins 
Bill Self  Kansas  532 wins 
 Jim Boeheim Syracuse  947 wins 
Bo Ryan  UW-Madison  347 wins 
Mick Cronin  Cincinnati  231 wins 
 Greg McDermott Creighton 253 wins 
Roy Williams  North Carolina 723 wins 
Fred Hoiberg  Iowa State  88 wins 
 Lon Kruger Oklahoma  537 wins 
Jim Crews  St. Louis  407 wins 
Josh Pastner  Memphis  129 wins 
Craig Neal  New Mexico  27 wins 
 Kevin Ollie Connecticut  44 wins 
 Tom Izzo Michigan State 462 wins 
Shaka Smart   VCU 133 wins 
Thad Matta  Ohio State  377 wins 
 Larry Brown  SMU 215 wins 
Past NCAA Champion

Do you see any trends? Nine of the top-25 teams are coached by past champions. Six of the nine past champions in this year's field have the average of 532 wins or more. Now let's look at the wins of the past 14 NCAA championship-winning coaches as they went into their championship-winning tournaments-

 2013  Louisville Rick Pitino  661 wins 
 2012  Kentucky  John Calipari  499 wins
 2011  Connecticut  Jim Calhoun  849 wins
 2010  Duke  Mike Krzyzewski  862 wins
 2009  North Carolina  Roy Williams  588 wins
 2008  Kansas  Bill Self  343 wins
 2007  Florida  Billy Donovan  290 wins
 2006  Florida  Billy Donovan  255 wins
 2005  North Carolina  Roy Williams  464 wins
 2004  Connecticut  Jim Calhoun  674 wins
 2003  Syracuse  Jim Boeheim  647 wins
 2002  Maryland  Gary Williams  475 wins
 2001  Duke  Mike Krzyzewski  600 wins
 2000  Michigan State  Tom Izzo  114 wins

These numbers seem to suggest the odds are much longer for Arizona, Wichita State & Virginia, than their fans might want to believe. Head coaches with fewer wins than Sean Miller, Gregg Marshall & Tony Bennett have won championships in past years, but it hasn't happened often.

One example is Larry Brown, who only has 215 career wins at the Division 1 level, even though he has more than 1,300 career wins in the ABA and NBA. Tom Izzo would be another, although his position as a long-time assistant in the program seems different than that of Miller, Marshall or Bennett. The all-time example is Steve Fisher, who had exactly zero wins as a head coach, before Michigan made a run to the title in 1989.

Someone might cite Brad Stevens as an example of a coach who made it to the championship with just 83 and 123 wins. He did, but he lost both times and we're talking about champions here. Could Jay Wright or John Beilein's teams emerge this year? Maybe. Wisconsin fans might cite Bo Ryan's overall coaching record, which includes far more wins than the 347 he has picked up at the Divison 1 level. However, this is D1 and UW-Platteville is not walking through that door. I'm not counting Greg McDermott's non-D1 record or Roy Williams' coaching record at Charles D. Owen High School either. 

Lon Kruger is the lone coach in the current top-25, who hasn't won a title and has more wins than the average championship coach over the last 14 years. Could this be Oklahoma's year? We'll start finding out answers to all these questions next week.

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